Business man and woman handshake, symbolising respect when letting staff go.
Image: © Jirapong/

Anxious about letting staff go? Keep these useful considerations in mind

10 Sep 2019

Shane Cradock draws on his experience in CEO leadership to talk about how a company should approach letting staff go.

Being let go from employment is very difficult for both the employee and the CEO.

I believe how a company lets staff go often says more than any statements about values or culture. Another side of that is how people are treated tends to affect existing staff. I think an effective measure of success in letting someone go is if, post-employment, you hear them telling a friend, “It was difficult leaving, but they really treated me fairly and with respect.”

It’s also vital to remember that remaining staff will have questions and make judgements based on what they see and hear. It’s important that managers communicate a clear and consistent message as to why changes have happened, whether it be poor performance, loss of business or restructuring needs.

It’s important employers get the process right when it comes to telling staff their services are no longer needed. Here are some tips for business leaders:

1. Be decisive and clear in your communication

Letting people go is part of the journey for every leader. It’s important to be up front with people when communicating the reasons for being let go. In the volatile world of business, things can change quickly. Contracts can be lost, mistakes can be made. Information needs to be clearly communicated and repeated.

If it’s a case of letting an employee go due to poor performance, I’ve seen managers not tell people the truth and devise softer reasons. The best people I have worked with will air transparency and always share the truth behind letting someone go. This is beneficial to the ex-employee as they have a chance to change and improve where necessary, assuming a performance management process has been in play along the way.

2. Remember the staff who are staying

Your team is your most important asset. They can get easily distracted and become distressed by a colleague leaving. Don’t be surprised if they ask questions, such as what does that employee leaving mean? Why has it happened? What about my job?

It’s important to frame a narrative that is true but also helpful to the overall business.

3. Manage the distraction

No business is immune to having to let people go. Once the somewhat gruelling process is complete, leaders need to regain their focus, with everyone else redirecting their attention to the overall success of the organisation. Focusing your own mind and that of your team becomes even more critical. Letting people go, while tough, brings great opportunity in how you can improve the company.

Difficult terminations

It’s very difficult to see your team-mates and friends leave. Managers can find it extremely challenging and it can prove an emotional time for the organisation.

It’s important for managers to possess an ability to balance emotions with process, which is why it’s vital to be clear on HR and legal advice, especially with difficult terminations.

It’s never easy letting people go and it’s important to remember that it’s part of the journey for every leader and every organisation. It’s also necessary to improve the company and review its direction. No sports team stays the same – there is always movement of players and talent for different reasons, and business is the same.

Maintain positivity

I think the key thing to remember is that staff read more into behaviour than words. I recall a business owner losing his temper with an employee and having a shouting match with them in front of everyone in the company.  Then, 24 hours later, the employee was fired. This unprofessional behaviour led to an unsettled organisation. Within the space of six months, several good people left the company because of it.

Managers need to ask themselves: Is this person being treated the way I’d like to be treated in similar circumstances?

The best companies I’ve worked with sometimes went the extra mile and provided additional resources for staff being let go, such as training to upskill or recruitment support to find a new job.

Many companies today are very aware of how to manage the exiting of staff fairly and respectfully. A human approach is of central importance, as is being fair to the person and the business.

I recall a colleague telling me that, when he started working at Boston Scientific, the managing director at the time welcomed him alongside other people. He said: “I can’t guarantee you a job for life, but I can guarantee that while you’re here you will learn a lot and make yourself better for your next job – which may not be here.”

He was true to his word. Although my colleague had to leave the business a few years later due to organisational changes, he still talks about that business in a very positive manner.

Leaders’ words always need to match organisational behaviour, to ensure a smooth exiting process and for the business’s greater good.

By Shane Cradock

With more than 20 years of experience working with leaders across more than 50 industries, Shane Cradock provides consultancy and coaching for entrepreneurs, top executives and their teams, specialising in improving performance and productivity.

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